Many novice chicken-keepers are horrified when their first chickens suddenly start to lose feathers, and think that there is something wrong with the birds. In fact, moulting is a perfectly natural process which occurs annually in late autumn or early winter. It can look fairly shocking, particularly in hybrid birds which lose a lot of feathers all in one go, but don’t panic: in a few weeks the birds will have their new feathers and will be plump, fluffy and looking better than ever.
The moult process
Once grown, feathers cannot repair themselves. Even with careful preening they deteriorate over time, and by late summer the plumage of birds more than a year old may be looking tatty, dull and lacking in lustre – hardly fit for keeping the birds warm through a damp and dismal winter. Nature’s solution is to have the birds drop the feathers and regrow new ones in pristine condition; not all at once, but in ordered sections so that the bird is never completely bald.
The moult usually occurs in a predictable pattern: head and neck first; then the saddle, breast and abdomen; then wings; and finally the tail. The speed at which the moult progresses is tied in with how well the bird lays. This means that for some heritage breeds moulting is long and drawn out, whereas for modern laying hybrids it can be very abrupt with sections overlapping, leaving the birds looking almost oven-ready. If one of your birds takes much longer than others of the same breed to moult, it’s a good bet that they’re a poor layer too.
What if it’s the wrong time of year?
Moults can occur at any time of the year if a bird is subjected to stress. Stresses that affect chickens include sudden changes in light (such as several days of really heavy weather or shutting the bird up in a shed for several days), shortage of food or water, poor conditions, disease or internal parasites, sudden changes in temperature (such as a heatwave or cold snap), fright (from children, pets and predators, or a sudden shift in the pecking order), or other traumas. In young and healthy birds, exposure to stress will usually only cause a temporary drop in egg production, but for older or ill birds, stress can halt laying altogether and trigger a moult. Feather loss can also be a sign of feather pecking.
If you see a sudden decline in egg laying or notice feathers lying around when it isn’t moulting time, see if you can identify what may have stressed the bird; if you cannot, be wary for signs of illness and quarantine any birds that you think may be unwell.
Laying during the moult
Regrowing feathers takes a lot of protein and energy, so the hen’s reproductive system shuts down to give priority to feather production. Heavily laying hybrids may lay through the early part of the moult, only stopping when the wing feathers begin to fall, but for most birds laying stops a few weeks before the moult actually starts. This sometimes leads novice poultry-keepers to suspect illness, but the time of year is a big clue that the moult may be coming up; if the birds look otherwise well there should be nothing to worry about.
Diet during the moult
Because feathers are 85% protein, chickens need a lot of protein in their diet while they are moulting. Chickens who are short of protein may start to peck other birds’ feathers, a habit that can be really difficult to break. If you stick entirely to a complete commercial food then you have little to worry about, but if you supplement with mixed (or “scratch” corn) or other foods to stretch the commercial ration, you should cut back on these until the moult is over. Some chicken keepers like to give their birds a mineral supplement such as Poultry Spice during the moult, and although this probably isn’t necessary for birds given a balanced feed, it does seem to be popular with the chickens themselves.
Even fully-feathered chickens are not waterproof. Under normal conditions they will ignore light rain, but they will seek shelter if they start to get chilled. Naturally, half-bald chickens get chilled faster than fully-feathered ones, so it is important to make sure that they have access to shelter of some sort. This doesn’t have to be fancy; anything that allows the birds to get out of the rain and the worst of the wind will do fine.
After the moult
If you clip the wings of your birds (useful for escape artists that are light enough to fly), you’ll have to do it again once the new flight feathers have grown.
Each moult represents the end of a reproductive cycle for your birds, and the following cycle will be less productive as the bird ages. After the first moult, you’ll get 90% (for older breeds) to 70% (for modern hybrids) as many eggs during the second cycle. The second moult will take longer than the first one did, and after it (in the bird’s third reproductive cycle) you’ll only get 70 to 80% of the eggs you got in the second cycle. So for modern hybrids, which are inexpensive and lay 300+ eggs in their first year, it may make sense to replace them by the second moult.
“If maintaining egg production all year round is critical (say, for farm gate sales) this can be achieved by replacing half of your stock in late summer each year. Birds bought at point-of-lay in summer will not moult until the following year, so their eggs will see you through the period when last year’s birds are moulting. So in summer 2012 you may buy some pullets which will lay while the 2011 birds are moulting, and the 2010 birds are for the pot.”